In the Land of the Pure
By Kenize Mourad
Lightstone Publishers
ISBN: 978-9-69-716280-2
313pp.

Kenize Mourad’s debut novel, Memoirs of an Ottoman Princess, immediately captivates the reader. It tells the story of a time and place which is hidden from most eyes, yet the tale is of universal interest. Similarly, Mourad’s second novel, In the City of Gold and Silver, grips the reader’s interest because of its dynamic heroine. Mourad’s third foray into fiction writing, In the Land of the Pure, suffers from having neither a glamorous heroine nor a noble backdrop, yet it makes for a satisfying read.

Mourad has been a journalist in France for more than 50 years, with the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent as her focus. She has a facility with putting her thoughts on paper and whatever she writes is clear and engrossing.

The premise of In the Land of the Pure is simple: A French journalist, Anne, is sent to Pakistan to report on the nation’s nuclear assets. The West is concerned about the danger of the assets falling into the hands of the jihadis or Islamists. The book opens with a scene where Anne is in the clutches of some radical group and is being treated like a spy.

A French journalist pens a novel about Pakistan which, surprisingly for a Western writer, presents a sympathetic view of the country and its people

In the Land of the Pure is presented as a geopolitical thriller and the first couple of pages live up to the genre. But thereafter, the book becomes a treatise on Pakistan and Pakistanis. Right at the end of the book, Anne is asked by a Pakistani to write about this “misunderstood” country, a country which is “torn between terrorists and Western rejection.” Kenize Mourad has done exactly that and her years of journalistic experience has helped her to do it well.

The book reveals many facets of Pakistan and each chapter zooms in on a different aspect of the country. As Pakistanis, we are inured to being reviled by the West. Pakistan is considered to be the most dangerous nation in the world. Many of our other international ratings are also abysmal. So being censured has become a way of life.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism, we are our own strictest critics. Hence Mourad’s sympathetic handling of the subject is highly endearing. Her biography mentions that she has family in Pakistan and that she visits often. This may very well have coloured her view of the country.

The book has 23 chapters and, apart from the last few, they can be given names according to what subject they are expounding. For example, the first chapter is about the rich and famous of Lahore during Basant, the second is a survey of the havoc created by the recent floods and the third about the blasphemy law and its effects on Pakistani Christians. There are chapters about Partition, about the fall of Dhaka, about Edhi, about the walled city of Lahore, and even about the army and the new Great Game.

It is almost uncanny how Mourad voices the same sentiments that are often aired in our drawing rooms. She talks of elite capture, of governmental indifference and of the big-hearted philanthropy of the common Pakistani. Unlike social chatter though, the author backs her views with facts and figures, in the true spirit of journalism. For example, she notes that Edhi donated US $200,000 to the American Red Cross to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

All through the book, the protagonist, Anne, is being goaded by her editor to get sensational news about the bomb or expose some Pakistani scandal. However, as she meets locals who shower her with warmth and affection, her view of the country begins to alter. She becomes reluctant to fulfil her editor’s demands.

Pakistanis become less fearsome and more akin to humans anywhere else, with their daily struggles and aspirations for a better life. She begins to write about what she sees, not what she has been sent to cover, though she has to give her articles a certain slant to earn editorial approval.

This brings up the question of who exactly is the target audience of In the Land of the Pure. The fact that there are footnotes explaining Urdu words means that the book is only tangentially for Pakistani readers. But would a Westerner enjoy reading about Pakistan at such length and with such a positive bias? Will he or she even be open-minded enough to allow the book to dispel the image of Pakistan as a terrorist country or, at the least, to put it into doubt?

Whoever it may be that Kenize Mourad is trying to reach, she does it with style. She has scattered many gems of wisdom throughout the book. They seem to be nonchalantly bestowed upon the reader but, in reality, they are very pertinent and can have originated only in the mind of a thoughtful author.

About war correspondents, Mourad observes, “…they are not heroes but overgrown adolescents bored with daily life.” Of men she says, “...left-wing men can be just as sexist as right-wingers,” and about our modern world, her take is, “…in the world today, societies are closing dangerously on themselves.”

As the reader comes to the last three chapters of the book, the story picks up, the pace accelerates and the narrative reads like a novel. The hints of danger subtly mentioned throughout the book come to a head. Anne’s life is in peril. She also finds that she is in love. Romance blossoms in the idyllic setting of northern Pakistan. All of Anne’s fears, hopes and longings culminate in a series of unforeseen events and an unanticipated ending.

What is distinctive about this book is that its real hero is Pakistan itself. Western writers almost never have anything good to relate about our nation. Pakistan becomes newsworthy only when something dire occurs here. So it is truly heartening to read In the Land of the Pure, for it does not vilify the nation.

Mourad handles the negative aspects of Pakistan with sensitivity and understanding and does not forget to elaborate on the positive points. That is what makes the book a pleasure to read.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 21st, 2024

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